The latest fashion breakthrough is taking activewear in a whole new direction: researchers at Nottingham Trent University have developed a new fabric with interwoven tiny photovoltaic cells that can charge electronic devices such as mobile phones and smartwatches. According to the school’s announcement last week, the sample pattern contains 1,200 tiny solar panels – each measuring just 5 by 1.5 millimeters – that can generate 400 milliwatts (mWatt) from the sun, enough to power small devices thanks to the renewable energy source take care of .
“Until now, very few people would have thought that their clothing or textile products could be used to generate electricity,” explains Theodore Hughes-Riley, senior researcher and associate professor of electronic textiles. “… [T]The material we’ve developed looks and behaves practically like any ordinary textile, as it can be wrinkled and machine washed.” The researchers also note that the wearers didn’t even notice a difference in the composition of the fabric in comparison to standard clothing, since the tiny solar cells are made of silicon.
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Potential expanded applications include constructing items such as outerwear, backpacks and other tote bags from the material, which could allow wearers to keep their devices charged while on the go during the day. “Electronic textiles really have the potential to change how people relate to technology, as this prototype shows how we could avoid charging a lot of devices on the wall,” adds Hughes-Riley.
Solar energy innovations are key to human society’s transition away from fossil fuel technologies and are emerging in a variety of different areas. The European Space Agency, for example, is planning experiments with solar collector systems orbiting above the earth. Since there are no real “days” or “nights” in space — not to mention zero cloud coverage — the potential solar power generation could be eight or nine times greater than what is currently achievable here on the planet’s surface. As powerful as this may be for us one day, it’s heartening to know that even small changes like the composition of our clothing can help kickstart our species’ needed renewable energy shift.